It has been unfashionable for some decades now for observers of human political relations to talk about what it means to be a civilized nation. Such discussions tend to slide sideways into an argument, or in most cases a chorus, regarding the wicked nature of empires and the evils of cultural imperialism, to say nothing of the escaping hiss of racism. However, on that terrible morning of September 11, 2001, the boundaries of allowable discourse changed. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in one of his finest moments, looked upon the ruins of the World Trade Center towers and said “This is not an attack on the United States, this is an attack on civilization.”
He was right, but political observers caught up in the more horrible aspects of that day and the fumbling wars that it spawned have forgotten or ignored the important cultural statement in Blair’s few words. We have been distracted by the often clumsy response of the Bush administration and the apparent incapacity of the world in general to recognize the nature of the situation. Blair’s statement remains relevant today, and it is time to speak while this window of permitted discussion remains slightly open.
Blair properly acknowledged, in a situation that made his point starkly clear, that there is a meaningful, legitimate, recognizable difference between civilized and uncivilized societies. Our world contains both, some in the form of nations, and they are not morally equal, whatever their legal status may be. In effect, he said that our world contains barbarians who act against civilization. Civilization is on one side of a symbolic gate and barbarians on the other.
This may seem so obvious that it is hardly worth mentioning—Samuel Huntington discussed the issue somewhat in his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations, and others have talked about it as well—but it raises important fundamental points about how societies interact and the nature of their relationships with one another. The norms of the post-World War II era have erected a spindly superstructure, rooted in the concept of the United Nations and indirectly in our own Declaration of Independence, that declares with breathtaking sweep that all of the world’s peoples are citizens of sovereign nation-states and that these states have, at least formally, identical rights and privileges in the world political community, such rights being universally acknowledged by all other such states. This admirable act of hope blithely looks past, or at best minimizes, extraordinary differences in culture, economic capacity and leadership norms, leaving us today with a set of expectations that rest on sands of dubious stability.
American commentators of the political right have approached this package of issues by focusing on international law. Their view, boiled loose from its protective layers, is that the U.S. can and should do whatever it wants and needs to, and to hell with anyone else. Conservatives such as Robert Bork would filter international relations through a lens of morality, while Charles Krauthammer would simply toss the idea of international law. Huntington acknowledges the origin of the term “civilization” as the opposite of barbarism. However, he focused in his book on the ways in which different kinds of civilizations will interact with each other, without spending a great deal of time examining the consequences of renewed barbarism for our conception of the nation-state and, for lack of a better concept, the rules under which such states are allowed to exist.
All of these writers were too cautious, or perhaps they felt too constrained by the norms of American public discourse. That may seem like an odd statement for a cultural liberal like me to make about a clutch of people clearly far to the right of center, but I think it is time to have a frank discussion of just what it is that requires us to treat other people as having institutional rights roughly equal to our own.
Civilized societies owe only limited acknowledgement of equality and legitimacy to uncivilized, that is, barbaric, societies. This is the truth that can’t be, but must be spoken aloud in today’s political arena. In short form, societies that have, and use, peaceful means of resolving problems owe no duty of mutual acceptance to societies that are fundamentally based on, or widely accepting of, the use of violence in settling differences. If we do not recognize this, and if we continue to pretend that we owe all of the courtesies of the parlor to people who would happily cut our heads off, then we will see many more heads of our people and the people of other civilized nations cut off. The sword cannot indefinitely be held off by the pen, however artfully wielded that pen may be.
Our own nation has been sometimes eager, sometimes reluctant, to use the sword and anything else that came to hand, including nuclear weapons, both with and without coalition partners. We have, during our less respectable periods, been perfectly willing to harbor and support anyone who would oppose a communist, real or imagined. A fair chunk of south Florida culture is a living memorial to our ridiculous obsession with the “threat” of Fidel Castro, whose treatment of his own people is a bad thing in itself but hardly a threat to the U.S., except to the extent that it affects the Florida electoral vote.
Yet with rare exceptions, the U.S. has not tried to destroy nations or peoples that stayed home and respected their neighbors. For the most part, American power has been exercised against people who emerged from their own sovereign space to harm others. That threat of harm still exists. The notion that a civilized nation owes a duty to an uncivilized nation to respect the latter’s borders and policies no matter what lurks within them is a common and very dangerous presumption in today’s very dangerous world. An assumption that such a duty exists means that civilized nations are always waiting to be attacked, and will be attacked.
In the days of muskets, civilization could afford this very lofty moral seat. We could easily survive the consequences, which were limited to a fairly small number of people directly, and to the larger population mainly in subtle, longer-term ways. That is not true today. The basic concept of no first strikes (applied to conventional warfare and anti-terrorist actions) presupposes that we can easily allow a few arrows to fall upon our leather shields. That approach has no answer to the placement of a nuclear weapon in one of our cities, the release of major biological agents or the willingness of suicide flyers to dive into a nuclear power plant or dam.
What limits exist to the right of self-governance? The answer cannot be that there are no limits. We have seen too many wars and exceptional acts of destruction by governments against their own people in the past 75 years for such an argument to have much credence. Once we leave behind the absolute right of nation-states to do what they will within their geographic boundaries, we enter a very misty arena where political theory tangles with cultural imperialism, the less obvious subspecies of racism, notions of self and the rights of individuals, and of course the basic right not to be killed.
At what point does my right to walk down a street outweigh your right to kill me in the name of a culture? Upon what basis may I take steps to ensure that you are incapable of killing me or that your chances of doing so are greatly reduced? Must I obtain a partner, and if so, what kind and how many? What steps are effective, and of these, which are appropriate and reasonable? Note that we must look at effectiveness first, for without it, reasonableness produces no result.
The fact that George W. Bush has made a unique, historically massive and truly extraordinary mess out of U.S. foreign policy in much of the world, a mess that may take a generation of sound leadership to correct, cannot be allowed to blind us to one thing that he has always understood: the United States has no choice but to take action against our enemies elsewhere if we want to avoid seeing them here again. This has nothing to do with Iraq, a war begun behind a curtain of falsehood, fought and won with some effectiveness and followed by an ill-planned occupation maintained at great cost toward unclear ends to help a people who, in significant part, want us to go away. It has to do with people who do want to kill us, wherever they may be. I think Senators Obama, McCain and Clinton all understand this, which is to the good.
There remains the very significant problem of definitions, categories and subtleties. The United States already recognizes that there is such a thing as state-sponsored terrorism (in which we never mention our role in Nicaragua), and we maintain a short list of nations that in effect have a scarlet “T” supplied by us hanging around their necks. Is that enough? No. The U.S. needs to make clear that it does not recognize the right of any nation to shelter or arm terrorists, and reserves the right to take punitive action against terrorists inside any nation that does so. That policy, not the idiocy of an occupation of Iraq, is what we need to have in place in the coming years.
We need not adopt the hyperventilated anti-Muslim rasping of the late Oriana Fallaci, but we would be well advised to attend when she opens windows of such clarity as this, from her final book The Force of Reason:
“We fight this war to free Iraq, Bush and Blair had said. We fight to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq as at the time of Hitler and Mussolini we fought to bring democracy and freedom to Europe and Japan. … I objected: you’re wrong. Freedom and democracy are not two pieces of chocolate to give as a gift to those who don’t know them and don’t want to know them. In Europe the operation succeeded because in Europe the two pieces of chocolate were a food we knew well, a heritage we had built and lost, thus we wanted them back … . In Japan it succeeded because Japan had already begun the march toward progress in the second half of the 19th century. … Freedom and democracy have to be wanted. And in order to want them you have to know what they are.”
She goes on to argue that many Muslims don’t understand or want freedom or democracy because those concepts are contrary to “theocratic totalitarianism.” Thomas Friedman commented in the New York Times in January, 2007 that the Muslim community rises up in anger about cartoons in foreign newspapers but remains silent with “no moral voice” when it comes to constant mass slaying of Muslims by fellow Muslims. He concludes that “if Sunnis and Shiites can never form a social contract to rule themselves—and will always require an iron-fisted dictator—decent government will forever elude them.”
Muslims from the more anti-western nations are an easy (and sometimes appropriate) target, but the concept of barbarism vs. civilization has no particular connection to any religion. As an atheist I treat no religious view as correct, and I support no crusades. The world contains many barbarians; I offer no brief to rank bullets by whether they are stamped with a cross or crescent.
We need a new terminology that more accurately describes what clashes we really face. We face a clash between civilization and barbarism. Barbarism sometimes wears a mask, and sneers that because of our nature, we must bow before the mask while the barbarian strikes us down. It is possible to determine the difference between these two broad classifications of humanity in many cases, some of which involve distinctions between nation-states. We must not fear to strike off the mask and call the barbarian by his true name.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his 1990 book On the Law of Nations, noted the political right’s view with some alarm, concerned that “There is a risk that we will jettison the whole idea of international law where the unilateral use of force is concerned.” International law has always allowed any nation to defend itself against attack. Our defense can’t treat all nations as having an equal right to respect, the traditional view of international law, because some are unable or unwilling to cease their barbarism.
Martha Finnemore, in her 2003 book The Purpose of Intervention, provides an exceptionally clear overview of how norms regarding international intervention have changed. She notes that among the modern trail of justifications for intervention are such relatively recent ideas as protection of human rights, but that changing social norms also establish an expectation that nations not act unilaterally even in pursuit of such obviously “good” goals. Multilateralism seems to have acquired a mantle of presumed good will sufficient that many states capable of acting on their own now seek at least nominal partners.
Beyond the realm of actively barbaric states, many nations are simply not capable of meaningful sustained self-governance more complex than the loose organization of bribery and quasi-military thuggery. The notion that modern, civilized nations should pretend that such countries are due the respect owed functional governments is problematic. In my work I routinely encounter the systematic fraud machine that is called a government in many nations of Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific islands and locally in central and southern Asia. I have the legal authority to reject such frauds and that is what I do. A government is due respect only insofar as such respect is earned by conduct.
The noted national security writer David Isenberg reminds me that international law treats all nations as sovereign, but that sovereign does not mean the same thing as equal. What is an appropriate meaning for sovereign today? Does it mean absolute autonomy to take any action whatsoever regarding its own citizens? Noncitizens? Does it mean that a nation may allow itself to become an international safe house for murderers?
And what does the word “equal” mean when filtered across linguistic and cultural membranes? Equality among nations is recognized pro forma in the U.N. and in the international custom of treating the ambassador of St. Kitts with courtesies nominally identical to those of the ambassador of France. Does equal mean the same thing to the people of North Korea, the U.S., Iran, China, France and Sweden? Clearly not in the rights and responsibilities of their peoples in the political and economic arenas.
I do not argue for a return of empires, through which the strong subjugate the weak. Their day is rightly done. We must, however, recognize that some peoples are unfit to govern themselves within acknowledged boundaries as fully independent nations. They are unfit because they are barbaric, not civilized, or because they have demonstrated unfitness through sustained incompetence in the basics of government. The world needs a mechanism through which such peoples can participate in the family of nations without also having the right to prepare and execute harm against others.
Some kind of protectorate, restriction or supervision system is needed for nations that become mere Petri dishes for the breeding of horror, but the current international political climate, rooted in the fiction that all peoples are sovereign by right, does not allow for such an arrangement. The right to self-determination has become a right to be allowed wanton destruction. Owing in significant part to the unprecedented sacrifice of national credibility by the Bush administration, the United States must re-earn the political trust necessary to participate in any such system of international relations.
However, public policy in the United States and elsewhere in the civilized world can and should change to recognize the difference between peoples that are civilized and those that are not, and our formal relations with different kinds of entities, and those few on the margins, should allow for these fundamental differences. If we do not do this, great harm lies ahead for our own people and for the cultures they represent.